Between a Wi-Fi rock and a high-tech place: Expedia preaches connectivity and productivity in new Seattle HQ

Expedia Group VP of IT Chris Burgess shows off a fake rock that will house a Wi-Fi access point and be among many embedded into the company’s landscaping at a sprawling new waterfront campus in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The bustle of construction and prep work continues outside at the massive Seattle waterfront campus where Expedia will start moving the first waves of its 4,500 employees next week. Inside, you can hardly hear a thing.

In soundproof booths and meeting rooms, at floating work stations, bellied up to fancy micro-cafes at every turn, and in front of giant windows offering sweeping views of Puget Sound, Expedia has designed a place for tech workers of all types, while taking aim at culture, recruitment and retention in a city where competition for talent is never ending.

Expedia’s $900 million move from Bellevue, Wash., into the former — and now totally reimagined — home of biotech giant Amgen, is a chance to leave behind any of the aches and pains of being a skyscraper-housed tech company. On 40 acres in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, the company is spreading out in a big way, and encouraging employees to take advantage of the space — all while staying hyperconnected.

As Expedia has refurbished two existing Amgen buildings and works to build other new ones alongside acres of open green and waterfront spaces, the guy in charge of getting all the tech to work showed off everything from W-Fi-enabled fake rocks to an app that will help employees find their way around and find each other.

“It affords us the opportunity to really look at how our employees work, how they collaborate and reinvent that a little bit,” Chris Burgess, Expedia Group’s vice president of information technology, said of the huge move. “Technology should get out of the way and make it easy to do things. You shouldn’t have to think about how to hook up your laptop at your desk.”

Floating workspaces of all types fill the Expedia buildings, including thousands with single, curved monitors. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Burgess, who is based at Expedia offices in London, has been with the company more than 17 years, after starting as a Global IT Field Services Director in 2002. He knows firsthand the importance of being able to connect and stay connected to co-workers all over the world. Dropped calls in parking garages or elevators or on walks away from the main buildings should be a thing of the past thanks to 100 percent coverage from 1,200 Wi-Fi access points across campus. That’s more than all of the points in all of Expedia’s European offices combined. Burgess also said it’s more than all of London installed for the 2012 Olympic Games.

They’re even in rocks. Hollow, fiberglass “rocks.” But, to the untrained landscaper’s eye, they’re still rocks.

“We could have taken what some other companies have done, which is integrate [access points] into lighting and things like that, but we actually wanted it to be seamless with the environment,” Burgess said. “And that’s where this came in,” he said, flipping the rock over and setting it back down on a desk.

Soundproof booths are another of the unique workstations dotted around Expedia’s buildings. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Expedia even invited 500 employees into the space this week to do a Wi-Fi test, spreading them around campus to work and ensure there are no dead spots. Burgess’ team at one point cut the number of access points in half, and there were still no connectivity issues.

Getting on Wi-Fi and staying on is all about speed and productivity — and the fact that employees are not headed into work on Monday to dedicated, hard-wired desks. The open floor plan concept is being totally embraced — nearly every standard workstation looks identical in row after row of simple desks, each with a single, 34-inch curved monitor. Sticklers for cord management will notice multiple options for powering a variety of devices. The lighting throughout speaks more to a fancy hotel or restaurant than it does to a tech company.

“Universal desk was the term we came up with,” Burgess said. “Any device that we offer our employees can connect to that universal desk. And the average that we’re looking for is 10 seconds. There is no need to connect any sort of network connection. Whether you’ve got a PC, whether you’ve got a Mac, whether you’ve got an iPad — you can connect USB-C and you’re up and running.”

Plug and play: chords for a variety of devices are meticulously managed at each work station. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The effort greatly reduced cabling infrastructure throughout, although video conferencing and room-booking systems still rely on being hard wired. While employees will “float” to whatever type of workstation suits their needs — standup desks, benches, circular tables, cafe-style booths, soundproof phone booths, wicker chairs seated on a skybridge near open windows — they will still be assigned to “neighborhoods.”

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And if you’re the type who likes to clutter a desk with photos or bobbleheads, lockers at the end of desk rows are there for your stuff and lockable with a touch of the employee badge. Burgess called it a “cultural shift” and noted in his own career he always spent time wanting that “corner office.” And as he got closer to that thing he was striving to attain, the concept of the office disappeared entirely.

“We found that initially it is an adjustment for people, but once you’re used to the other benefits that you get from how you can collaborate and how you can go to a quiet space … we found that the challenges that people had went away,” Burgess said.

The goal — for a travel company, after all — is to have consistency across its locations around the world, so that employees have the same tech and workspace experience in Seattle, Austin, London, India and elsewhere.

A view of a skybridge — with windows that actually slide open — that looks west toward Puget Sound. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Finding a co-worker on a 40-acre campus could present its own challenges. There are 5,400 “workpoints” planned, including 3,800 seats in 770 meeting rooms as well as 310 VTC-enabled spaces. If you’re not lost inside, then perhaps you’re somewhere among the 1,000 trees and 100,000 plants outside, or in the storage area that has room for 400 bikes, or in one of the 48 showers near the fitness facility. Maybe you’re in the onsite medical area, or perusing the marketplace of food offerings, or wandering the soccer pitch, or looking for your car in the six-story garage.

Expedia has an app to help, of course.

Employees can use “EG Navigator,” a jumping off point for all of the other apps that employees have to help them navigate life as an Expedia employee. And it can serve as sort of a beacon to locate meeting rooms and peers and provide directions between point A and point B. For privacy sake, the ability to share your location with 4,500 other workers is optional.

A conference room view looking south toward downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
A cafe counter next to a lounge-style meeting space. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

There are 184 offices listed in the app — which is also a web-based tool — along with employee profiles, org members, telephone numbers, emergency procedures and more. Burgess envisions functionality down the line that could involve rewards or badges for completed training courses, gameification or even a social component.

Just days after Google opened its latest campus in South Lake Union, and Amazon continues to build out its headquarters across that neighborhood and more of downtown Seattle, and Microsoft digs into a major overhaul of its campus in Redmond, Expedia is poised to join the cutting-edge lot.

Staring out from the quiet of a conference room at the heavy equipment and construction workers dotting the landscape below, Burgess soaked in the transformation of the space into the Seattle region’s newest high-tech epicenter.

“There’s a moment of anxiety, but then it works and people are happy,” Burgess said. “It’s been great being part of it from a technical and a delivery point of view, but also just gradually seeing it come to this. I don’t think there will be a project I ever work on in my career that’s as big and as cool as this one.”

Keep scrolling for more photos:

Expedia made large improvements to a waterfront trailhead near its new campus in Interbay. (GeekWire Photos / Kurt Schlosser)
The Prow is a special meeting space intended to rise out of the landscape like a ship.
A panoramic view looking back at the Expedia buildings, a nearby grain terminal, and downtown Seattle.

Open stairwells are decorated with elaborate murals.
Expedia’s parking garage will hold thousands of cars — and hundreds of bikes.
Expedia is a build a “transit hub” for its own shuttle buses, across a foot bridge from its campus.